A URM condo building, fairly typical of the many URM structures common in NW Portland. Photo by Wesley Mahan

Allan Classen
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Lame duck Dan Saltzman now heads seismic mandate program

Mayor Ted Wheeler passed the baton for enacting the city’s controversial seismic retrofit program to Commissioner Dan Saltzman, whose term ends next month.

The transfer was made without public announcements by either official, a hint that the program has become an unwanted stepchild.
Last month, City Council approved a requirement that owners of unreinforced masonry buildings post warning placards. It passed 3-0 as two commissioners—Nick Fish and Chloe Eudaly—stepped out of the room during the vote.

Fish told the NW Examiner later why he left.

Fish said he told Mayor Ted Wheeler before the meeting that he could not support the placard requirement, offering to leave the room rather than vote no in the interests of “better future cooperation.”

Eudaly did not explain her rationale.

“It’s a purely symbolic action that doesn’t solve any problem,” Fish said of the placard policy, which he expects will be ineffective.
“Worse, it’s likely to be punitive, greatly impairing the ability of some to refinance their property.”

Fish referred to evidence that government-ordered warning placards will be taken as demerits by lending and insurance agencies, undercutting the owners’ access to funds that might go to expensive retrofits.

As to the next phase of the seismic program, retrofits to reduce the chances of buildings collapsing, Fish believes the more expensive and burdensome elements will be modified after an advisory body studies implementation options over the next year.

Fish said he expects “a solid majority will emerge that doesn’t approve of the proposal currently on the table.”

A council majority in this vein may become more likely after commissioner Saltzman completes his term. Saltzman oversees the Bureau of Emergency Management and is the council’s strongest advocate for seismic mandates. His replacement will be Jo Ann Hardesty or Loretta Smith, both of whom have misgivings about the program.

Hardesty sees the major obstacle—one that has daunted the initiative the past three years—as how to place enormous financial obligations on building owners without public assistance.

“It would be extremely irresponsible of the city to require all buildings to be retrofitted without any understanding of the financial impact it will inevitably have on homeowners, property managers, small business owners, churches and nonprofits. Because of these impacts, I will also be interested in seeing the proposed financial incentives,” she said.

Smith’s statement to the Examiner was more extensive.

“The city has a responsibility to ensure that the estimated 1,600 URMs are not putting our citizens at risk,” Smith wrote. “However, I have several concerns with how this program is moving forward.

“There has been little public involvement, especially among people of color and pastors from predominantly African American churches. That has created distrust and doesn’t help us all move to making our city more resilient.

“I’m also concerned that the buildings listed as a URM may include buildings that aren’t, yet the process to clear that label is costly and time consuming.

“Regarding the placards required on these buildings, I think the decision was made with unintended consequences. Once a property posts the placard, it will make it harder for property owners to have access to financing and insurance to pay for the retrofit. It may also deter renters from living in those buildings, again negatively impacting the owners with less cash flow that would actually help fund the upgrade.
“The placards by themselves will not make us safer. It sends a false sense of security in other buildings without placards, but those non-placard buildings may not be any less likely to collapse in the event of a major earthquake.

“As commissioner in charge of the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management, I would take a pause, engage the community and bring all parties together to help find solutions and low-cost funding options to help property owners retrofit their buildings, especially nonprofits and churches.”

Implementation of the placard mandate may be delayed by a preliminary injunction filed by attorney John DiLorenzo of Davis Wright Tremaine. DiLorenzo told the Examiner that the council’s action may violate free speech protections because it treats different classes of building owners differently.

DiLorenzo obtained a $10 million settlement from the city in 2017 over misuse of Portland Water Bureau funds.